Thursday, December 14, 2006

Women and virtual community....

I wanted to follow up a bit more on yesterday's post about community, prompted by Jen at One Plus Two who writes:

"But I do know I long for a sacred place - where women come together, to debate, to heal, to grieve, to flow. A place where our truest selves can be put forth and honored like the incredible gifts they are. Where our idiosyncracies can be discussed and cherished. Where many women love my child....

And while I long for that place, I find tremendous joy in the blog world, the place where I have more honest exchanges with others than I often have in person...."

Is this possible in the virtual world, as it is in our immediate lives?

Aaaah. With a bit of reservation, I would say "possible".

I came on the Internet in 1991 when my ex-husband and I bought a phone modem, the old kind that required us to put the mouthpiece of the phone into a cup and dial in to the Delphi service. At that time, the Internet was primarily for academics and geeks who exchanged data and information on forums. There was very little personal communication. That atmosphere didn't last long.

Later that year, I was given internet access at work. I worked in the Information Technology Dept at a large company and the whole idea of having access was new. At that time, we used newsgroups. Everything from alt.culture.iceland to alt.s*x.b*ndage was at our fingertips. These all became lively, often contentious, forums where opinions overrode academia. It was exciting to sit in the middle of the night in a data center at Hewlett-Packard and talk to a guy in Iceland almost instantaneously. Things were still painfully polite then... although that didn't last long. As it became clear that the Internet was the wild, wild west, it was easy to see people acting out whatever issues they had in public. They could curse others, They would express opinions that would not have been acceptable in polite company and that was the Internet's pre-adolescent phase.

As the medium developed further, we had mailing lists. Majordomo software allowed large groups of people to discuss anything in a semi-private setting via e-mail. It was a very pleasant way to find others of like mind and exchange regular email. We used "Elm" and "Pine" as email clients. There were no graphical interfaces.

Then came the world wide web, yahoogroups, more mailing lists, forums, personal "home pages" and, finally. blogs. GUI continued to develope and anyone, not just geeks, had access to mass communication.

In watching this over the years, I've concluded that very similar dynamics occur in cyberspace as in any voluntary community. It went through a honeymoon phase, an adolescent phase, a maturing process and now is a combination of all, depending on the individual user. The technology was available but the quality of interaction still depended on each individual and how she chose to behave on-line.

One of my best friends is a woman I met on-line. Ultimately, we met personally and have maintained a friendship since 1996. She is "family", probably one of the few people I trust unconditionally. She is the person who holds my medical proxy. However, I think this is unusual.

In 1998, I witnessed one of the most vicious catfights in my personal history on-line among a group of women who gathered ostensibly to create a "women's community on-line". Going back to my earlier statement about people working out their "issues" in a nearly-anonymous venue comes to mind. These women were truly among some of the most vicious human beings I have ever observed. Like a pack of cur dogs, they turned on one woman and tore her up.


Because they could.

The entire event was like a train wreck. It was disgusting and difficult to watch ~ and I also couldn't not observe. The relative anonymity and lack of accountability on-line allowed these women to act out their basest instincts and behaviors without any risk of consequences.

It didn't ruin the internet for me... or the ideal of women's community. If that was the case, I wouldn't be paying Comcast an ungodly amount of money every month, not to mention what I pay to Earthlink. I'm here for the foreseeable future. But still, it did show me what is possible, just as my friendship with S**** showed me what is possible.

Trust ~ real trust ~ is formed through knowledge of another person in all settings. It is based on knowledge of a person's values and how she lives them. How does it manifest in her life on a daily basis, especially when external life sucks?

We can admire someone's writing, her ideas, her maturity, her wisdom, her *being* on the Internet. We can form a community of likeminded others who exchange ideas and thoughts. It is a venue where we can air out issues and get input from those wiser and more knowledgeable than ourselves. We can offer encouragement and comfort to someone who needs it. We can educate each other.

We can not be "friends" in the truest sense of that. How can I be your friend ~ but be unable to cook for you when you are sick... or hold your hand at a scary doctor's appointment... or babysit your child when you need time away.... or loan you money to get by for the next few weeks? How can I be your friend when I can not truly offer more of me than pixels on a screen?

That doesn't mean we can't be honestly concerned about one another. I have internet contacts in whom I am wholly invested. I care what happens for these people... and that caring doesn't go away just because the screensaver comes on.

Still, as Jen writes, we are able to exchange wisdom and knowledge, empathy and compassion. Sometimes we are able to offer some life-changing nugget to someone who is ready to hear it.

That is an element of community-building... an important element.. but it will never be a substitute for the "real thing".




Comment about "comments": I understand that some people have been unable to leave comments here due to a glitch in the Blogger software and the beta/non-beta dogfight. It seems to be a chronic rather than temporary issue. On this blog at least (which is beta), comments can be left anonymously or by signing in as "Other". They are not moderated. I hope that will work. I really miss some of you who used to leave your nuggets of wisdom to ponder.


Anonymous said...

I am in complete agreement. You should teach a class on this very subject as I believe the new generation needs to be given some sort of guidance as to the way in wich technology should be integrated in one's life.I think our culture needs to pay close attention to the lack of importance we afford philosophers and teachers.Shaping and guiding the thought-process is a long and arduous task, one that I feel has been neglected in our consumption,performance-driven society. I come here , among other things, for my philosophy fix. Many thanks Chani.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chani: I'm one of those who has been unable to get in on your blog and I will try the "other" choice. I really enjoy your blog and I can't help but say that I get a chuckle out of the fact that you were going to "back off", on writing according to one of your blogs...and I think it has only spurred you to write more ! I love it.
I think the Internet is perfect for people like me ...somewhat "loners", but still in need of community to stay sane.

Anvilcloud said...

You have been online a long time. I didn't get on until several eyars later, and I thought that I was relatively early. Usenet still exists but seems to be being dropped by ISP providers like mine, so it may not be around much longer.

Anonymous said...

I do agree. But it's a sweet sort of compromise.

Unless, of course, you discover these souls in communities not too far from yours - oh, say 2 or so hours away....:)

Pam said...

I think the personal touch is an integral part of friendship and community, but I am making friends on blogger that are becoming invaluable to me, one in particular. I would rather "be there" when I am needed but since she lives on the other side of the continent, I will settle for the internet and an occasional phone call. I am relatively new here and look forward to getting to know those of you that I communicate with better as time goes on.

LittlePea said...

I'm still new to this blog-world-thing. I'm learning something new everyday-not just "how to this and that" but about myself. I still haven't quite put my finger on why I even started and frankly am not the least bit concerned if my blog is only visited by the handful of loved ones that regularly check in. It makes me happy-and it's as simple as that. I know for sure that I've always enjoyed hearing the story of someone's life-even if it's just a snapshot- which is why I truly enjoy visiting the blogs of others. My Grandpa once told me that technology made relationships so impersonal-he changed his mind when emails, ecards, and IM brought us closer than we had ever been!

meno said...

hi chani,

as one who is enjoying your online self, i say yeah to this post.

I think that anonimity is the cowards way out and allows people to behave in a way that they otherwise might not. Kind of a revealing of the real self.

And even though you and i are both anonymous bloggers, i still feel a sense of knowing you and i wouldn't disrespect you even if i disagreed with you.

QT said...

I agree with meno - if you can't attach your name to your words, then you probably shouldn't be saying them. There are ways to disagree with someone without being disrespectful and rude, just like you would with a friend.

That being said, I have a very dry sense of humor that often comes across as curt or angry in the printed medium. It is something I struggle with, but I am not a hearts and flowers type gal, so I just don't think I should change, you know? I know you know!

Thank you for another thoughtful post.

Anonymous said...

heart in san francisco said...

I have had my blog only since June of this year, but I do care a great deal about some of the people with whom I interact. I think they are a special, new category of "friends."

People have grown increasingly estranged from each other. They no longer touch each other while dancing, the phenomenon of phone sex, which I thought was a joke when I first heard of it, is apparently widespread (no pun intended.) I suspect that many are more comfortable with friendships in which they are NOT able to make dinner or babysit for each other.

In an age in which the external world is particularly frightening and people are in great need of direct contact with others, we seek solace in our independence while flirting with the concept of friendship anonymously.

Anonymous said...

Caro, I wish I had the qualifications to teach a class like that! It would be so much better to think of myself as being informed.. instead of just "old". LOL

I guess I'd really be dating myself to admit remembering ARPANET. (g)


Ginnie, now I feel like this writing is entirely voluntary. There will be days I'll skip it.. or write really short ones. (short for me is about 500 words LOL)


Anvil, didn't Google take over Usenet? They hold the archives, don't they? It's pretty much a wasteland now.


Jen, are we actually that close? (I say laughing since it might as well be Thailand. I don't drive. :)

Yes, it is a compromise.. and a bloody good one. I just think it is so important to have people around in person, too. As much as we might value our cyber-acquaintances, they can't pick us up from the dentist. Yanno? :)


Pam, I look forward to that, too. I do enjoy all of my Internet friends and acquaintances.


Ms Pea, oral history is a very important thing.. and blogging is a form of oral history. There's a reason why Mormon people all keep journals. It is a way for those who come after us to get a sense of who we were, how we lived, what we valued. It gives us a sense of history. Blogging is a very positive thing! :)


Meno, the anonymity also has a positive aspect. It is a safety thing. We can reveal our true selves here.. and won't have any negative consequences that might be present elsewhere. Blogging isn't very political whereas many personal circles are.


QT, I understand. I'm not a hearts and flowers kind of gal, either. I'm very compassionate.. but that's not the same as sentimental or sympathetic ~ and I'm not really big on unconditional emotional support. Unconditinoal emotional support can be very destructive. It's a difficult balance to achieve sometimes but once people know us, it usually works out okay. You know, people just want to feel safe and "heard". Once they know that, they can then be free to enjoy your dry sense of humor... and I'm sure they do!


Susan, you have summed it up very well. We are increasingly alienated.. probably largely based on the fact that we view each other as separate and autonomous. Many of the things we see going on now are directly linked to that. If I realize that hurting you would also hurt me and everyone else, I am less likely to hurt you. Does that make sense?

Until that massive awakening occurs though, you're right. We do feel much safer in our own comfort zone, keeping friendships within certain boundaries.


Thank you so much, everyone. You all make these discussions so valuable! :)



Anonymous said...

hi Chani.this thing seems to not like to let me leave a comment so I will try again.I really liked your post.its sooo true.we need each other.its human nature to seek out friends who we can share our selves with.Jesus told us to meet our fellow mans needs then the man would see how much God loves him.if we don,t meet peoples needs then we fail big time.some one once said "you can,t go up to a man dieing of thirst and say God bless you and walk need to give him water and shade and a helping hand.then you don,t need to say a word your actions have said it all."Merry christmas."

Gobody said...

Chani, you reminded me of the old days on the internet, I thought I would never meet another soul who has been that long to remember pine and Majordomo. Ever since these days I have met many friends online who became dear friends off-line as well. Some of them traveled more than 6000 miles to meet me and our friendship is longer than a decade now. I also met on the internet those who have touched me deeply but disappeared without a trace. And I still remember them in my mind in every occasion and wish that they are doing fine and that they are happy somewhere. The sheer number of people on the internet make it easier to find similar minds and to bond without any expectations.

PS: I am able to post again like myself!